Education on the Space Shuttle

    Image of the STS-1 patch showing the space shuttle flying in an orbit around Earth with a second image of the shuttle positioned above

    The first flight of the space shuttle captivated the minds of future astronauts and engineers. Image Credit: NASA

    You might say that education on the space shuttle began the day that the first shuttle launched on April 12, 1981. Even though no official education payload was on board Columbia, astronauts Robert Crippen and John Young ignited a spirit of exploration in young people around the globe as the shuttle lifted off into space on STS-1.

    Astronauts always took the time, while in orbit, to engage students in some kind of education activity. They answered questions from students about living and working on the shuttle, performed experiments, took pictures of life in orbit and of Earth, and brought the mysteries of microgravity into the classroom.

    Continue reading to learn about some of the education projects that were made possible by the dedicated astronauts during missions on space shuttles Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavour.

    Shuttle to Ground

    Space Amateur Radio Experiment
    On November 28, 1983, STS-9 was launched carrying Mission Specialist Owen Garriott, Amateur Radio call sign W5LFL, and his ham radio into orbit. For 10 days the space shuttle Columbia streaked through the skies. And for the last seven of those days, hams around the world were sent into orbit emotionally when they heard Garriott’s voice break their squelches calling earthbound stations. It was just the beginning. Amateur radio had moved into its newest frontier, and it was there to stay.

    In addition to the possibility that earthbound hams could make random contacts with the ham-astronauts aboard space shuttles, amateur radio took on a new role. That role began with the dawn of the Space Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment, starting with STS-35 in 1990. This new secondary payload called SAREX brought the opportunity of scheduled radio contacts between the orbiting ham-astronauts and schools. SAREX put astronauts and the space program in direct contact with school children around the world!

    Amateur radio continues today on the International Space Station as the ARISS project.
    › View site

    Live In-flight Education Downlinks
    Students and educators participated in long distance conversations from space in live in-flight education downlinks. Typically, the downlinks allowed for 20 minutes of live interaction between the students and crew members in which the crew answered questions and performed simple educational demonstrations. Members of the informal and formal education communities, NASA centers and education projects, and the International Space Shuttle partners hosted these events. Two downlinks were conducted during STS-118, the first flight of an Educator Astronaut. Over 350,000 students and teachers participated.

    Live in-flight education downlinks continue today on the International Space Station.
    › View site

    EarthKAM, originally called KidSat, began in 1994 on the space shuttle. The brainchild of the first American woman in space, Dr. Sally Ride, the Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students education program gave students hands-on experience in space operations. A NASA camera was installed on board the shuttle. Middle school students across the United States and abroad had front-row seats on a space mission. Students used images to study Earth science and other science disciplines by examining river deltas, deforestation and agriculture. The hardware consisted of an electronic still camera and a laptop that was set up by an astronaut and then operated remotely from the ground with imaging requests coming directly from the students. During the space shuttle mission, students set up a classroom Mission Control operation to track the shuttle's orbit. By calculating latitude and longitude, students followed the shuttle's route and monitored weather conditions. After choosing photo targets, students relayed those instructions over the Internet to the University of California at San Diego operations unit. Undergraduate volunteers wrote the code that instructed the camera when to acquire imagery. The students received photo images through the website and analyzed data. EarthKAM flew on six shuttle missions and now continues operations on the International Space Station.

    To date, more than 73,000 students from 1,200 schools in 17 countries have participated in the program.
    EarthKAM continues today on the International Space Station.
    › View site

    Experiments and Investigations

    Shuttle Student Involvement Program/NASA Student Involvement Program
    The Shuttle Student Involvement Program, or SSIP, and later the NASA Student Involvement Program, or NSIP, offered students the opportunity to participate in investigations and design challenges, some of which resulted in flying student experiments on the space shuttle. By participating in these competitions and learning activities, students were able to learn science by doing science. National competitions helped select student experiments to fly on the space shuttle or on a NASA sounding rocket. The teacher and up to four student representatives of each team selected for flight won an expense-paid trip to Student Flight Week at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. During Flight Week, experiments were examined and packaged to await shuttle flight.

    The Shuttle Student Involvement Program began in the early 1980s in partnership with the National Science Teachers Association. Awards included scholarships, travel to NASA centers and school visits from NASA representatives.

    Get Away Specials/Space Experiment Module
    The space shuttle provided the perfect vehicle for students and teachers to fly experiments in microgravity. Students of all grade levels participated in the Self-Contained Payload Program -- popularly named Get Away Specials -- and the Space Experiment Modules Program. College and university students worked through the engineering process to design and build hardware necessary to meet criteria and safety standards required to fly aboard the shuttle. Students proposed research projects that met NASA-imposed standards. The payload had to be self-contained, require no more than six crew operations and be self-powered. Meeting these goals was a challenge because the payload bay was in the vacuum and thermal conditions of spaceflight.

    Project Starshine
    NASA deployed reflective spherical student satellites from two separate shuttle missions -- STS-96 in June 1999 and STS-108 in December 2001. Volunteer organizations and individuals in the U.S. and Canada built the satellites. Each satellite, covered by approximately 1,000 small front-surface aluminum mirrors, was machined by technology students in Utah and polished by tens of thousands of students in schools and other participating organizations around the world. During the lifetime of the satellites, faint sunlight flashes from the mirrors were visible with the naked eye during morning and evening twilight periods. The student observers measured the satellite’s right ascension and declination by reference to known stars and recorded the precise timing of their observations by the use of stopwatches synchronized with internal time signals. Students measured the latitude, longitude and altitude of their observing sites and posted observations and station locations on the Starshine website.

    Project Starshine engaged approximately 120,000 students in more than 4,000 schools in 43 countries.

    Toys resting on a table are a friction car and loop track, paper eagle, and balloon helicopters

    STS-54 flew toys to space. Image Credit: NASA

    Toys in Space
    Toys are engaging and fun, yet their behaviors on Earth and in orbit can illustrate science, engineering and technology concepts for children of all ages. The STS-51, -54 and -77 crews carried toys into orbit. For these missions, crews also carried the questions of children, teachers and parents who had suggested toy experiments and predicted possible results. A few dozen toys and a few hours of the crew members' free time brought the experience of free fall and an understanding of gravity's pull to students of all ages. Some of the toys were spinning tops, yo-yos, boomerangs, magnetic marbles and coiled-spring jumpers. Crew members volunteered to perform toy experiments on orbit where gravity's tug would no longer affect toy activities. Toy behaviors on Earth and in space could then be compared to show how gravity shapes the motions of toys and of all other moving objects held to the Earth's surface. NASA created DVDs with curriculum guides for all of the toys that traveled into space. The Toys in Space Program integrated science, engineering and technology. Toys in Space activities continue today in the NASA Digital Learning Network project.

    Toys in Space activities are available today through NASA's Digital Learning Network.
    › View site

    Investigations in space continue today on the International Space Station through the following projects:

    Kids in MicroG
    Design with space in mind! Experience the design process through this hands-on opportunity that involves designing an experiment that can be performed both in the classroom and aboard the International Space Station.
    › View site

    Spaced Out Sports
    Are you as interested in science and engineering as you are in sports? Students are challenged to design a sport that astronauts can play on the International Space Station. The top teams will watch as their games are played by International Space Station crew members!
    › View site

    Spaceflight Science and the Classroom

    Can students learn from space shuttle science? Three life sciences researchers took their space research to the classroom to answer the question.

    Bone Experiment
    The Bone Experiment was carried on STS-58, a mission dedicated to life science research. The experiment evaluated the role of microgravity on calcium-essential element for health. With the assistance of lead scientist Dr. Emily Holton, three sixth-grade classes from the San Francisco Bay Area in California conducted parallel experiments to Holton's spaceflight experiment. The students conducted experiments on cucumber, lettuce and soybean plants using hydroponics. Half the plants were fed a nutritionally complete food solution while the other half was fed a solution deficient in calcium. During the two weeks of the mission, students measured each plant's height and growth pattern and then recorded the data. The students analyzed data and recorded their conclusions. The classes then visited NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., where they toured the life science labs and participated in a debriefing of their experiment with researchers and astronaut Rhea Seddon.

    Fruit Flies
    Scientists worldwide use fruit flies for research because their genome has been completely mapped; their short life cycle enables multiple generations to be studied in a short amount of time; and they have many analogous processes to humans. The fruit fly experiment flew on STS-121. Its goal was to characterize the effects of space travel on fruit flies' immune systems. Middle school students followed this experiment through a website that provided information about current NASA space biology research, the scientific method, fruit flies and the immune system. Teachers and students conducted hands-on activities relating to this experiment using documentation on the site. Students communicated with expert fly researchers, made predictions about the results and asked questions of the scientists.

    Frogs in Space
    NASA launched a Japanese-sponsored life science mission on STS-47 for the study of how space would affect the African clawed frog's life cycle. Fertilized eggs were packaged in small grids, each housed in specially designed plastic cases. Some of these samples experienced microgravity during the mission. Others were placed in small centrifuges and kept at various simulated gravities between microgravity and Earth environment. The education portion of the experiment allowed student groups and teachers to learn about the frog embryology experiment by studying the adaptive development of frogs to the microgravity environment. NASA produced an education package and educational CD-ROM from this experiment.

    Seeds on the Space Shuttle

    Space Exposed Experiment Developed for Students in Space I: Tomato Rutgers California Supreme (1997)

    SEEDS I was a cooperative project between NASA's Educational Affairs Division, NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and the George W. Park Seed Company of Greenwood, S.C. Students conducted a variety of investigations with tomato seeds carried aboard the Long Duration Exposure Facility, or LDEF. Prior to flight, the tomato seeds were tumbled in a drum to remove the seed fuzz. This procedure reduced the volume and lessened the possibility of contamination of the seeds. The LDEF, carrying nearly 12.5 million tomato seeds, was placed in orbit on April 7, 1984, by the crew of space shuttle Challenger and retrieved almost six years later by the crew of space shuttle Columbia on January 12, 1990. In preparation for flight, seeds were sealed in five aluminum canisters. The seeds were packed in Dacron bags forming four layers per container. Passive detectors were placed in each canister to record the highest internal temperatures and accumulated radiation. For nearly six years, the seeds were exposed to the harsh environment of space and subjected to cosmic radiation, temperature extremes, weightlessness and the vacuum of space.

    An equal number of tomato seeds from the same seed lot as the flight seeds were stored at Park Seed Company facilities. They were stored at 21 degrees C (70 degrees F) at 20-percent relative humidity. Both flight seeds and Earth-based seeds were produced during the same growing season and received no chemical treatment.

    In March 1990, NASA distributed 180,000 SEEDS kits containing space-exposed seeds and an equal number of Earth-based seeds to teachers in grades five through university level for experiments and study. At the time of the SEEDS I project, questions arose about whether handling the seeds, which had been exposed to radiation in space, would be harmful to humans. NASA consulted the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, the Food and Drug Administration, and other research scientists to assure the public and educators that the seeds were safe.
    Sources: SEEDS I Activity Book, NASA Fact Sheet "SEEDs Project Statement," Letter from Department of Agriculture January 19, 1990, NASA Press Release "Local School Growing Space Tomatoes."

    Space Exposed Experiment Developed for Students in Space II: Tomato Rutgers California Supreme (1997)

    NASA Life Sciences Outreach developed SEEDS II for use by educators to create and conduct a plant biology science investigation that uses the scientific method. This method is the same process that scientists use to design a ground-based or a spaceflight-based investigation. Park Seed Company of South Carolina assisted in preparation, storage and packaging of all SEEDS II seeds. Before Sept. 25, 1997, 4.2 million tomato seeds were tumbled in a drum to remove the seed fuzz. Like the seeds in the SEEDS I project, this procedure reduced the volume and lessened the possibility of contamination of the seeds. The seeds were then divided into three equal amounts or sets. One set was kept at Park Seed facilities as the control seeds. One set was sealed in a Get-Away Special Canister and flown aboard space shuttle Atlantis as part of the payload for the STS-86 mission. The third set was sealed in a dry container and placed in the Scott Carpenter Space Analog Station and deployed underwater in Key Largo, Florida. Upon conclusion of the nine days, all seeds were returned to Park Seed Company in South Carolina where they were packaged in foil packets.

    The seeds and a packet of materials with detailed information about the scientific process, the history of the seeds, an instructional poster, an STS-86 mission poster, and suggestions for designing, preparing, and conducting a plant biology experiment were distributed to educators.
    Source: SEEDS II Education Packet "An Adventure in Scientific Inquiry"

    Drawing of a red tomato with a space shuttle flying overhead

    The Tomatosphere project was a joint effort between NASA and Canada. Image Credit: NASA

    Tomatosphere: Heinz 9478 F1 Hybrid (2000)

    The project dubbed "Tomatosphere" tested the effects of space conditions on tomato seed germination rates and growth. In total, the project involved 400,000 seeds. Half of the seeds were taken into space on space shuttle Endeavour on Nov. 30, 2000, by Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau and returned to Earth ten days and 7.2 million kilometers later. The seeds provided the basis for a Canadian Earth science education program that involved nearly 3000 elementary school classrooms and over 65,000 students from grades three to six.

    The seeds kept on Earth were subdivided and half of each of the initial groups were subjected to an experimental red light treatment designed to enhance germination. Some of the seeds were used in parallel experiments at the University of Guelph where scientists investigated the contributions of plants to life support in space.

    Students focused their experiments around a central question: Do seeds that have flown in space grow differently than seeds that have not? A secondary question related to the effects of the red light treatment on seed germination and seedling vigor in combination (or not) with spaceflight. Although the results indicated that the differences were small, a surprising trend appeared which indicated that seeds flown in space actually performed best of all.

    Tomatosphere partners were the Canadian Space Agency; Heinz Canada Ltd; H.J. Heinz Company Foundation; Centre for Research in Earth and Space Technology, or CRESTech; Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada: University of Guelph; NASA; Canadian Space Resource Centre; and Ontario Agri-Food Education Inc.
    Source: Introduction to Tomatosphere -- National Agriculture Awareness Conference

    NASA Engineering Design Challenge: Lunar Plant Growth Chamber -- Cinnamon Basil Seeds (2007)

    To mark the flight of the first Educator Astronaut, Mission Specialist Barbara Morgan, on STS-118, the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and the Office of Education co-sponsored a standards-based Engineering Design Challenge for K-12 students. In this challenge, students were given a basic set of requirements and constraints and asked to design and build a lunar plant growth chamber. To help students test their designs, educators were provided with two sets of cinnamon basil seeds. One set of seeds flew on the shuttle, and the other set was not flown. Approximately 2.5 million students and 150,000 educators participated in the challenge.

    › View site

    University Students

    College Education Undergraduates
    Understanding the principles of systems engineering used on the shuttle and applying those principles to many other design projects greatly advanced engineering education. Many advances had to be made by engineers working on the space shuttle that were then used in teaching engineering sciences and systems engineering in universities. The use of large, complicated design projects rather than smaller, more easily completed ones forces students to think of the entire system and use advanced engineering science techniques. Learning to design a very complex system provides the skills to transfer this understanding to the design of any system, whereas designing a small project does not easily transfer to large systems. Due to NASA's efforts in systems engineering, these principles were transferred to undergraduate engineering courses.

    Graduate Students
    The shuttle provided thousands of young scientists the opportunity to contribute to the design and implementation of experiments in the unique laboratory environment provided by a spacecraft in low Earth orbit. Between 1995 and 2003, flight and microgravity research in the life and physical sciences involved an average of 744 graduate students per year. In addition to mainstream investigations, shuttle flight opportunities such as the self-contained payloads program benefited students and proved to be an excellent mechanism for engineering colleges and private corporations to join in programs oriented toward the development of spaceflight hardware. All shuttle science programs significantly enhanced graduate education in the physical and life sciences and trained students to work in interdisciplinary teams, thus contributing to U.S. leadership in space science, space engineering and space health-related disciplines.

    Educators on the Space Shuttle

    Teacher in Space
    The space shuttle became a true focus for education when President Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space Program in 1984. Christa McAuliffe was selected as the first teacher in space, and Barbara Morgan was selected as her backup. Although her flight was not completed, McAuliffe inspired the nation's educators. Morgan flew 21 years later as the educator astronaut on space shuttle mission STS-118.

    Christa McAuliffe Christa McAuliffe Biography
    › View biography
    Barbara Morgan floating inside the space shuttle Barbara Morgan Biography
    › View biography

    Two men and a woman in blue flight suits

    Educator astronauts Joseph Acaba, Richard Arnold and Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger were selected in 2004. Image Credit: NASA

    Educator Astronauts
    In 2003 NASA announced they were seeking highly qualified and motivated K-12 educators to become members of the 2004 Astronaut Training Class. Thousands of teachers submitted applications through a website titled “” Three educators, Joseph Acaba, Richard Arnold and Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, were selected and joined astronaut Barbara Morgan as educators and fully trained NASA astronauts. Acaba and Arnold flew on STS-119 and Metcalf-Lindenburger flew on STS-131. During the selection process, approximately 200 candidates were rated as superior. NASA enlisted the talents of these exceptional teachers to serve as advocates for NASA and promote NASA Education efforts, and the Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers, or NEAT, was established.

    Joseph Acaba Biography
    › View biography

    Richard Arnold Biography
    › View biography

    Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger Biography
    › View biography

    The flights of Morgan, Acaba, Arnold and Metcalf-Lindenburger allowed NASA to engage students in more space-based activities. Three topic-based websites were created to allow educators and students to follow the activities of the missions and to provide educational resources for the classroom.

    STS-118 -- Engineering Design Challenge: Lunar Plant Growth Chamber
    › View site

    STS-119 -- Spacesuits and Spacewalks
    › View site

    STS-131 -- Robotics
    › View site

    The Tradition Continues -- The Next Generation

    So what's next for education in space? The Teaching From Space Office located at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston provides real-life connections to educators and students through experiences and resources not found anywhere else. Get involved in real NASA missions and research, gain access to NASA experts, and use NASA equipment to take learning to a new level.

    › Learn more